#GE2015: The Audacity of ‘Nope’

26 Apr

Something strange has been going on in the UK’s electoral politics. In what is predicted to be the closest (i.e. the most unpredictable) election in years, we’ve had a set of campaigns which have often seemed uninspiring at best. The tedium of two major parties deadlocked in the polls, and appealing to voters by appearing as like their opposition as they can be – rather than standing up for their own vision – has been enough to discourage even a ‘political obsessive’ like myself. Even more discouraging, the term ‘political obsessive’ sometimes elides closely with ‘has read a newspaper in the last fortnight’ – the closeness of the projected result has not yet produced a picture of mass engagement or a shift towards a decisive result ….

Back in the early 2000s Obama offered his voters the ‘audacity of hope’ and ended up becoming President against the odds. He had a coherent vision of the future – even if reality fell short. In Britain in 2015 the audacity of our politicians is to simply offer ‘Nope’ in answer to key questions on which we could make an informed choice. Will the Conservatives tell us how they will distribute £12 billion of welfare cuts to people of working age – many of whom struggle in low-paid jobs? ‘Nope’. Will the Labour party say exactly how much it will borrow to stimulate investment? ‘Nope’. It is as if these details don’t matter – but how we make a fully informed choice without them? The respected Institute for Fiscal Studies has asserted that the public is effectively ‘in the dark’ when it comes to where cuts will fall in reality.

Why is this the case? Well, that old mantra ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ has swallowed the political space, as Britain struggles to muster a decent recovery from years of austerity following the financial crash. The fine detail of how each party’s economic plan will work in practice has not been revealed.

The Tories justify their position by saying their ‘track record’ shows that they can grow the economy and make cuts – but the low-hanging fruit has been picked now and it’s things like child benefit and housing benefit – vital to low-income families – which are left. It really does matter where these cuts fall. As it does for cuts to unprotected government departments, many of which have been heavily cut already, and which deal with such trifles as higher education and justice to name but two.

Meanwhile, Labour argues that borrowing for investment will pay for itself through growth – no precise figures attached. And the ‘mansion tax’ will pay for some of Labour’s proposals, but how the housing stock in question will be valued (at what cost) remains unclear – in a country where the property banding values underlying council tax have not been reviewed for decades.

And the politicians and media spend inordinate time on discussing the ‘perils’ of electoral arithmetic represented by various possible multi-party options for minority governments or (whisper it) a future coalition. While the polls show that neither main party is likely to get a majority, neither of them can admit this until it happens. So we are stuck in a place where democracy has become a stick with which to beat the electorate – ‘don’t vote for an illegitimate government’ – that is a government which represents the pattern of your votes across parties in our particular political system…

And I cannot remember another election in which so many important issues have been overlooked – has there been any meaningful discussion of relations with Europe? ‘Nope’; of low productivity, ‘Nope’; of household debt ‘Nope’; of where to build affordable housing ‘Nope’; of how technology is impacting on the labour market and wider society? ‘Nope’; of social care? ‘Nope’; of climate change? ‘Nope’… the list goes on, in what seems to become a ‘Vote now, think later’ strategy based on a narrowing of view rather than a far horizon. Perhaps the real audacity of this strategy is that our leaders calculate they can get away with it, because they reckon many aren’t listening any more. So back to social media for a diet of photoshopped political superheroes and pictures of cats urging us to vote – well, it’s a vision of something …. I will cast my vote to symbolise the hope for something more.



Hillary Clinton stands …

13 Apr

Hillary Clinton’s bid for the US presidency is a cause for celebration for everyone who wants to see a woman lead the most powerful country in the world. Should she eventually triumph, it would be a big deal for gender politics worldwide and for the prospects of women in politics in her own country and beyond.

However, Hillary Clinton’s strengths as a candidate are also potential weaknesses – her massive reach and name recognition comes from her longstanding involvement in politics – as her husband’s First Lady, as senator, and as Obama’s Secretary of State – no-one can say that she lacks qualifications or experience for office, or exposure. But of course this history means that there are going to be people who have developed negative views of her, as well as the many who pledge their support.

And while the prospect of America’s first woman president would be a major symbol of women’s progress and progressive politics, the fact that Hillary Clinton is so much one of the political elite counts in the opposite direction. It is not unproblematic for the land of the American Dream that the 2016 race could end up being contested by Hillary, the wife of one former president, and a Republican who is the son and brother of two others (Jeb Bush). But then, who else is going to raise the eye-watering amounts of money required for the campaign? Young radicals may have difficulty getting hold of in excess of $1 billion in funding. This is a systemic problem which all candidates face.

The signal way of bridging the gap between the world of privilege that enables candidates to run, and the everyday world of voters, is through policies which impact on people’s lives. And while the woman in me is pleased that Hillary Clinton is standing, the wonk has yet to see what she’s standing for. There is no policy detail in the campaign as yet – although the idea of being champion for everyday Americans hints in a progressive direction. It’s time for Hillary Clinton to show her voters the money.

Shredded Wheat? I thought he said Cheerio ….

24 Mar

The Prime Minister has made what commentators might call an ‘unexpected intervention’ in his own election campaign, by saying that he would soon be off to let ‘fresh eyes’ take over at the top of the Conservative party. He declared that terms in office were ‘like Shredded Wheat’ in that 2 were just right, but 3 excessive. Therefore he would seek his second term, and if (quite a big if in the circumstances of the tightest election in years) elected, would pass on the reins of power to a. n. other come 2020.

Except, of course, by showing his hand just now, David Cameron seems to have opened, not shut, the succession question. This question will likely rear its head throughout the next parliament, IF the conservatives are returned to power. If true to his word, there would need to be a leadership contest in advance of the 2020 election, so that protestations about Cameron serving a ‘full second term’ are already so much spilt milk. So, now that the PM has shown that his cereal of choice is apparently ‘Cheerios’, with a prospective second term a long goodbye to the British public, it is perhaps timely to look in the Variety pack of possible successors and see where they fit on the breakfast bar of leadership choice:

George Osborne – Frosties – cool on the outside but watch out for the Tiger underneath. Is he really Grrreat?

Boris Johnson – The Honey Monster – eternally popular – but he might destroy the set

Theresa May – Weetabix – sensible, hi-fibre choice but will the other ‘titchy breakfast cereals’ stand in her way?

I guess they’ll all be hoping that David Cameron hasn’t made their prospects toast ……

Budget Mail (with apologies to W H Auden)

18 Mar

This is the Budget coming from the dispatch box

Bringing the new economic order

Tax cuts for the rich, how much for the poor,

Or the shop on the corner or the girl next door?

Channelling Renton (‘choose life’) a steady climb,

The deficit’s against him but he says he’s got time

Walking tall again, Britain’s getting bolder

Braying support from over his shoulder,

Noisy mayhem on the green benches

(All of them notable for lack of wenches).


Quietening down as he clarifies approaches

To spending and borrowing and where debt encroaches

Austerity cannot change its course;

Youth slumber on what have they lost?

Farmers get to spread their costs – they’re awake

But the bedroom tax still stalks estates.


Osborne freshens the climb is done,

Down towards detail he descends

Towards the Northern powerhouse where he amends, how to recoup business rates,

And adds support for transport and for health,

Set out on the page like gigantic innovations.

All Scotland awaits him:

In ‘one United Kingdom’

People long for something new.


Tax cuts for the rich, share sales from banks

Freedom in ISAs, and housebuyers say thanks

Welfare reform and invitations

To pursue tax avoidance or tax evasion,

And rising applications for situations

And married person’s tax allowance declarations

And gossip, gossip from all the papers:

Circumstantial news, financial capers.

Measures with living standards shown enlarging

Others say pressures still there on the margins

Measures for pensioners and air ambulances

Yorkshire job creation bigger than France’s,

Measures to support veterans and remember wars

And the 600th anniversary of Agincourt

Measures to appeal to every political hue

The purple, the orange, the green and blue,

The hard-working, the saving, the reassuringly boring

The digital natives, the orchestras touring,

Measure for middle-term, short-term and long,

Measures that some will say just are plain wrong.


Thousands are still undecided

Dreaming of alternative futures

And friendly candidates on the doorstep or the ballot paper:

Deciding in working Glasgow, deciding in well-set Edinburgh

Deciding in oil-rich Aberdeen,

And even in England they continue their dreams

And shall wake soon longing for results

And none will switch on the TV or the radio

Without a quickening of the heart

For who can bear to find out if they’re forgotten?



Giving Parliament and parenthood full attention

24 Feb

When Tory MP Andrew Rosindell remarked that Rachel Reeves’ maternity leave might rule her out of giving ‘full attention’ to her job, he walked into a minefield of gendered assumptions about working parenthood. Ms Reeves already holds high office in opposition with a young daughter, without apparent difficulty; would Mr Rosindell suggest that the Prime Minister’s children prove too much of a distraction from running the country? Thought not.   Presumably he thinks that is what David Cameron’s wife is for – conveniently forgetting that she also works, and that the couple may have other support in caring for their children.   And working men are parents too. The Reeves and the Camerons do not seem to be struggling particularly with work-life balance; indeed relatively high pay and (in Reeves case) access to informal care provided by family members make their arrangements more straightforward than those in many families. In case Mr Rosindell hasn’t noticed, the world is full of working women who happen to be parents.

His outmoded views of how professional women cope with having jobs and children simultaneously, is given added piquancy by the discussion sparked by the Straw/Rifkind sting. A whole debate has now grown around the extent to which it is possible to carry on with other commitments whilst being an MP – to what extent is public office a full-time job? Whilst paid lobbying is out of the question, is it ok to be a doctor or lawyer, a journalist, a consultant on boards, etc.? Does outside experience enhance the House, or is total commitment to the role the only way? Among the questions not being asked are, can men do two things at once? Does fatherhood interfere with public office? Perhaps to help resolve these issues, parliamentarians should ask a busy woman. She’ll make the time and have the skills to sort things out. And then go home and tell the kids about another full day at work.



The pink bus: a politics for her?

11 Feb

The internet is abuzz with reaction to Labour’s pink campaign bus for women voters. It will be used to ferry a group of female Labour MPs around the country, in a bid to address women’s issues in an approachable way.

In fact, the colour of the bus – which is controversial enough, and which has been the chief target of social media ire – bothers me less than the talk accompanying it. The idea apparently is for the Labour notables to go on a ‘kitchen table’ tour – a phrase which does rather suggest that the kitchen is where we women are supposed to be. Granted I love a good political argument around mine, but I don’t think that’s quite the image being conjured up here. Lucy Powell, a senior figure in Labour’s election campaign, is quoted in the Guardian as saying that the bus will mean that the female MPs “have a conversation about the kitchen table, and around the kitchen table” rather than having an “economy that just reaches the boardroom table” ‘.

An economy that ‘just reaches the boardroom table’? – that is just an impossible concept – the economy is created by all the activity of workers everywhere, and boards generally meet to make decisions and decide strategy for the future of whole companies. I’d prefer the kitchen table to be viewed as an integral part of the economy and society, and of course who sits at it most, is part of the backdrop to who makes it to the boardroom. I hope this is part of the conversation Labour will be having.

A Populus poll covered in the FT last week showed that while Labour enjoys a small lead over the Conservatives amongst women voters (3%), mothers of children under 18 are much more likely to vote Labour than Conservative (48% compared to 28%). These figures suggest that Labour has appeal for women, with mothers a key source of support. As over 70% of mothers are now employed, the kitchen table may not be the best place to look for them. Harriet Harman has argued that the bus is part of message showing that women in politics can stand up for women in society, which is a worthwhile aim. But judging by the online conversation, there’s a lot of people who feel that the pink bus is a turn-off, no matter how well-intentioned the focus on women may be.

The issues that have been highlighted as key to the bus tour for women are: childcare, social care, domestic violence, equal pay and female representation. These are all important issues, and yes, concern the position of women. But they also concern men – as fathers, as sons and partners, as perpetrators, as co-workers and as the main holders of positions of power. In packaging them as ‘women’s issues’, there’s a risk that they become more distant from the political mainstream. And if we look at the issues that are high up in the current general election debate – the NHS, the state of the economy, cost of living, immigration, education, EU membership, international policy in defence and foreign relations – all of these impact on women as well as men. In fact, as we still tend to do more of the care work, and are more likely to be employed in the public sector, some of these issues may even affect us more than men. And women are just as capable as men of forming an opinion on issues, which may not, literally, be part of daily life.

Perhaps the pink bus should be credited with getting us all talking about gender and politics, but it might do no harm to remember that ‘bus’ is short for ‘omnibus’ which means ‘for all’. That’s how I, and I suspect many others, like their politics.


Caring values

9 Feb

In an interesting juxtaposition, the headlines have been shared by two stories: Labour’s plan to double the length and raise the pay rates for paternity leave, and research showing that 160,000 workers in the care sector earn less than the minimum wage.

At first the two may not seem related, but on reflection they represent two aspects of the same issue: in our society caring work is undervalued, and rates of pay fail to reflect the efforts and skills of those doing it, or the value to society of the relationships this work builds.

I’m all in favour of men being given more opportunity to take paternity leave and also to share parental leave in their child’s early life – the evidence indicates that this is often a positive thing for families and for gender equality. In Sweden, where men have been entitled to a relatively generous parental leave regime for years, it’s been shown that every additional month of leave taken by a father is associated with a 7% rise in annual income for the mother of his children; and fathers who have taken parental leave tend to see their children more in the event of parental separation or divorce. In Iceland, where men are entitled to not one but three ‘daddy months’ , both breastfeeding rates and mother’s employment rates are amongst the highest in the world. And many point to evidence relating fathers’ involvement to good educational and social outcomes for children.

Labour’s plans for paternity leave may well be a step in the right direction, but they present a few issues as well: they are talking about raising the pay for paternity leave to national minimum wage level, which is a considerable improvement on the current very low rates, but nothing like the level offered in Scandinavian countries, or comparable to many fathers’ actual wages. Furthermore, while this reform would go a little way to making UK paternity leave more affordable, it also poses the question as to whether statutory maternity pay and shared parental leave should be raised to the same level. From an equalities perspective the answer has to be yes; besides, if the argument is that better rates of pay create better incentives to take time for care, it’s hard to see why this changes after the first four weeks of leave.

And these issues of incentives and equalities remind us again that paternity leave is granted in a context – a context of our expectations around, and the value of, care. It seems very difficult to argue that paternity leave should be better-rewarded than maternity leave, even if the economic reality is that men are often better-paid. The gender pay gap is in considerable part a result of attitudes and past behaviour in terms of who does the lion’s share of caring and domestic work. This brings us back to the story about underpayment of careworkers: over 80% of these workers are women. So no matter which phase of life we’re dealing with, and whether the carers are family members or a paid workforce,   the matter of gender won’t go away. Workers in childcare are not notably well-paid either, and also tend to be female. So if looking to give parents a break and to enhance choice around employment and care, it might pay to take a long look at the whole infrastructure of support for families. It’s often said that who dares wins, but the electorate might appreciate a greater understanding that who cares often loses. Changing that might get a few votes.



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